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How I set big—but attainable—goals for the New Year

For the last few years, instead of writing down New Year's resolutions, I've found it more helpful to make a list of broad goals instead.

“So this is the new year, but I don’t feel any different.” –Death Cab For Cutie

“A lot of the best work I’ve ever done started out as something completely different because I gave myself permission to have space around my time and expectations.” –Merlin Mann


I have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions because they tend to be so fraught: they’re notoriously hard to keep and there’s an underlying expectation that people will only last a few weeks before reverting to their old ways. The expectation of failure is so ingrained that my social media feeds have been full of jokes about the myriad ways that people will give up within days. It’s sad to say, but I think this makes some sense because it’s almost impossible to make major, lasting changes overnight. So many people set resolutions expecting that somehow everything will be different on January 1, and then when it isn’t (surprise!), they get discouraged and give up. And I don’t blame them!

The last week of scrolling by memes about people giving up on fitness resolutions has given me cause for reflection because I somehow managed to do the impossible in 2017: I maintained a shockingly consistent fitness routine even though that was not my resolution or even a clear goal. My goal for the year was focus on doing what felt good to me— and would be good for me— when the political climate was making me feel bad. The part about it being good for me was not really about “getting healthy” or “being fit,” but about developing coping mechanisms that would make me more resilient in the long run. I wanted to learn to attend to my actual needs instead of burning through all of my money by equating self-care with “treating myself.”

Having that sort of broad goal allowed me to be open to possibility and gave me room to maneuver. I was chasing a feeling, but the tactics were not clearly defined. Working out regularly ended up being the means, rather than the goal in itself. I think sometimes resolutions can be so prescriptive that they get in the way of what we truly want. They often become are more a reflection of what we think is expected of us than what we actually want. Because if we really wanted to do something, chances are we wouldn’t abandon it so readily by mid-January.

Out with resolutions, in with goals

Despite my misgivings about resolutions, I am a sucker for some good old fashioned goal setting aligned with a symbolic date. When I was in school I used to sit down and make a list of goals at the beginning of each semester and then choose one theme to focus on for the proceeding months. (For example, once I spent an entire semester trying to emulate design aesthetics that I hated). Since graduating, the dearth of symbolic starts and finishes has made it a bit harder to do this regularly, but I still try to do it a few times a year. I have a goal journal that I keep by my bed so I can do a brain dump when the time feels right and it also provides a record of what I wrote in the past. When I look back at my goals from six months ago, I’m often pleasantly surprised to see that I’ve checked a good number of them off the list—even if I don’t remember writing them!

What I’ve realized through this process is that simply writing down what I want to do helps me focus my energies on those things. I don’t necessarily need to revisit the list regularly, but it’s my way of memorializing my goals without actually having to announce them to anyone but myself. Sometimes it’s too scary to share with other people what we truly want—especially when we have yet to get started. Keeping the journal helps me be honest about that, but removes the pressure that comes with telling everyone and their mom what I’m setting out to do.

Turning goals into actions

Last year I discovered the Volt Planner, which is centered around goals and themes for each year, month, and week. I was intrigued by it because I’d been doing this less formally with my goal journal for years, but had never combined that with such a specific time element. What I like about this approach is that it adds a level between my broad goals and my daily tasks. It allows me to periodically adjust my rudder to make sure I’m heading in the right direction without getting too granular about all the things I need to do along the way. I find that getting bogged down in the details makes it hard for me to see where I’m going, but at the same time, having long-term goals without a plan can leave me lost at sea.

Because of the planner, I’ve been thinking for the last few weeks about what my theme should be for 2018. For 2017, I wrote that my theme was “growth,” and while I did grow in important ways last year, in retrospect it’s more accurate to say that my theme was “self-care.” I feel to some degree like I was hibernating and turning all of my focus internally. I know that’s what I needed to deal with the confluence of the toxic political climate and big changes happening in my personal life. However, I also know that’s not the way to live forever if I want to be the change I want to see in the world. I spent the year training both mentally and physically to prepare myself for what lay ahead, and I think it’s time to stop training and actually step out on the playing field.

New Year, New Theme

For the last month or so, my friend Eso Tolson has been saying “y’all gon’ see what I mean in 2018” and the more I think about it, the more it resonates with me. There are so many ideas I’ve had percolating for months now and even discussed with close friends, but unless I actually put those into action, no one but me can see the full vision. I’m not really much of a talker anyway, so I’d rather just show my work if I can.

With all of this in mind, my theme for 2018 is to produce and execute. At this point I’m basically an expert at navel gazing and coming up with interesting things I’d like to do someday. What I’m less good at is actually doing them. I’ve known this about myself for probably a decade, but it’s still hard. I wanted my theme to be more specific than “action” because there are infinite ways to take action that won’t necessarily produce anything interesting or execute on my dreams. I needed a theme that was specific enough to guide my direction, but that would leave enough room to change course along the way. So for everything I do this year, I’m going to focus on following through—even if I’m not quite sure yet what that will look like.

Melissa Green

I'm Melissa, an Art Director and everyday athlete. I started blogging to share my personal wellness journey—from coping with depression to using fitness as a vehicle to practice taking up space, facing my fears, overcoming perfectionism, and recognizing my accomplishments.

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